California workers seek stronger wage theft laws

Calling wage theft in California, “rampant,” hundreds of workers from across the state rallied in Sacramento on January 15 to demand that lawmakers pass AB 1164, a bill before the state Assembly that will add some muscle to existing wage theft laws.

“We are here today because there is a robbery in progress and the victims – hard working men and women who do our state’s hardest jobs – deserve justice,” said Mike Garcia, president of SEIU United Service Workers West. “Passing Assembly Bill 1164 will give us the tools we need to hold wage thieves accountable and put billions of earned dollars back into workers’ paychecks and our state’s economy.”

The rally, a media conference, and a lobbying training session were organized by the California Fair Paycheck Coalition.

If enacted, AB 1164 would extend the state’s Mechanic’s Lien laws to a wide range of workers. Doing so would allow workers who file a claim of wage theft to put a lien on property owned by their employer until the case is decided.

Currently, California construction workers can obtain Mechanic’s Liens when wage theft violations are charged, but as a 2010 survey conducted by researchers at UCLA shows wage theft is not uncommon in a number of other industries including janitorial services, garment manufacturing, carwashes, restaurants, and retail sales.

Since much of the wage theft that occurs in the state is done by subcontractors that can easily avoid responsibility for labor law violation by going out of business and reorganizing themselves, the bill provides sanctions against the subcontractors’ employers, who in some cases, hire subcontractors to avoid labor law accountability.

According to a media statement released by the Fair Paycheck Coalition, in Los Angeles alone, workers lose $1 billion a year to wage theft that can take different forms including below minimum wage pay, lack of overtime time pay, forcing workers to work during breaks or off the clock, and tip stealing.

UCLA researchers, who published their findings in a report entitled “Wage Theft and Workplace Violation in Los Angeles,” surveyed more than 1,800 low-wage workers in Los Angeles County. Of those surveyed, 30 percent reported being paid less than the minimum wage.

Respondents to the survey on average lost nearly $40 a week to wage theft, or 12.5 percent of their weekly wages.

The report estimates that 17 percent of Los Angeles workforce is made up of low-wage workers, the group most likely to be victimized by wage theft.

The most common victims of wage theft are women and immigrant workers.

Like most states, California has laws against wage theft, but the state’s enforcement remedies are weak. Fewer than 20 percent of California’s wage theft victims recover wages owed to them.

In Wisconsin, which has expanded its wage lien laws, the recovery rate is 80 percent.

“Our findings reveal that a shocking percentage of workers are unable to recover their unpaid wages in California,” said Eunice Cho, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project. “Sadly, without the tools in place to enforce their rights, workers can lose thousands each year in unpaid wages. California can put in place stronger tools – as other states have done successfully – to hold employers accountable for paying wages.”

The workers’ rally for action against wage theft coincides with an extensive media campaign paid for by SEIU. The campaign urges workers who may be victims of wage theft to come forward and tell their stories.

The six figure campaign includes Spanish-language radio ads in Los Angeles and other large and medium media markets and a presence on Facebook and mobile devices.

SEIU expects to reach 1.5 million workers who may have wage theft stories to tell.

“For too long employers have exploited our work, counting on the fact that we didn’t have a good chance of recovering our money,” said Anita Herrera, a janitor from San Diego who has been trying to recover stolen wages. “Women and immigrants are especially vulnerable. That stops today; we are bringing forward the voices of people who’ve been exploited, so legislators cannot ignore the impact stolen wages have on our families.”

Herrera has been trying to recover money that she was awarded because she was forced to work through meals and breaks without pay. Her employer has evaded paying the wages and is now operating under a different name.

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